When Dawn Steel (1946-1997) was promoted to president of Columbia Pictures, she became the first woman ever to run a major U.S. motion picture studio.
In the foreward to her autobiography, They Can Kill You, But They Can't Eat You, Dawn Steel wrote, "My story is far from a Hollywood fantasy. It might sound like one, though, if you don't look deeper: a girl from a struggling, lower-middle-class family grows up, gets through high school, drops out of college when she runs out of money … and winds up running a major motion picture studio." Steel would be the first woman to be in charge of such a studio; however, due to cancer, the story of her life did not have the classic happy Hollywood ending.
Steel was born August 19, 1946, in the Bronx, New York. Before her birth, her father had changed the Jewish family name from "Spielberg" to "Steel." Her parents raised her in the suburbs of New York in a comfortable setting until her father suffered a nervous breakdown when Steel was nine years old. From that day on her mother became the family provider, and Steel learned her first lessons of male/female equality from her mother.
During her adolescence Steel grew into a perfectionist, trying to win her mother's approval, a trait that would remain with Steel throughout her varied career. She recognized that her mother worked hard, but Steel also sensed her mother was only working a job and not pursuing a career. Steel decided she would have a career. Steel went to college to escape her parents' home. First she attended Boston University, and then transferred to New York University, where she was the only woman in the business school.
In 1968 Steel quit school and took her first full-time job. This first job was as a receptionist for a garment company. A few months later she switched companies, and then became the receptionist for the Stadia Publishing Company, which published sports books. She advanced from receptionist to secretary, and eventually even became a sportswriter. The sports business was where she experienced, first-hand, the inequality between males and females. And as other area newspapers went out of business, freeing up many male sportswriters, Steel knew it was time for a different job.
At this time, a new girlie magazine was starting up. Steel interviewed and was hired by Bob Guccione to work for Penthouse. Steel recalled Guccione as someone who "supported women's rights … long before it was fashionable to do so." Penthouse was a company that consistently promoted women to positions of responsibility, and Steel had an opportunity to try many different roles-from receptionist to editor to interviewer. One of the most important lessons she learned while working at Penthouse was the importance of "taking whatever job you do seriously and doing it better than everyone else." Eventually she was promoted to head of merchandising.
During her Penthouse years, Steel met and married her first husband, Ronald Richard Rothstein. Rothstein and Steel formed a business as well as personal partnership, and soon Entrepreneuse Enterprises, Inc. was up and running. In 1976 Entrepreneuse Enterprises introduced the world to designer toilet paper, ripping off Gucci in the process. Gucci sued and the case dragged on for a couple of years before settling out of court.
During this time, Steel's marriage fell apart. But what did not work on the personal level continued to work on the professional level, and in 1977 Steel formed Oh Dawn, Inc. with her ex-husband and started printing books on toilet paper, as well as printing on paper towels and creating novelty soaps. Steel also had a brief relationship with then unknown actor Richard Gere. This proved to be her informal introduction to Hollywood, because just as this relationship was ending, her relationship with Tinsel Town was just beginning.
The Early Days at Paramount
In 1978 Steel accepted a job as director of merchandising at Paramount Pictures. The first movie with which she was involved was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Steel created the first-ever fast food/movie tie in, and had Klingons soon eating McDonalds hamburgers and french fries and drinking Coca-Cola. Her work so impressed her bosses that Steel was quickly promoted to vice president in the production department. Admittedly, she had no idea what she was to do in that position-at first. But she was soon involved with a film that was to provide her with some credibility-Flashdance. This movie ushered in a new era of film and filmmakers, and Steel found herself on top of her field, hailed as one of the newest, brightest, and the best. Her second film-Footloose-was also a huge success.
During her early years at Paramount, Steel had a romantic relationship with director Martin Scorsese. This relationship enabled her to see the other side of her profession: the world of film directors and actors. Because Steel had a string of successful movies, she was promoted to Senior Vice President of Production. Her success continued, with such hits as Top Gun, The Accused (for which Jodie Foster won an Academy Award), Fatal Attraction, and The Untouchables.
At the 1984 Crystal Awards (a ceremony honoring women in film), Steel listened to Barbra Streisand's acceptance speech and couldn't help but be inspired to become a woman who helped other women succeed in the film industry. This was the first of two major events that changed her life that year. The second was meeting Chuck Roven, the man who eventually became her second husband.
Late 1984 also saw an exodus of top-ranking executives from Paramount; Ned Tanen was named the new president of Paramount's Motion Picture Division, and Steel was left as the production executive who had the most experience, but she wasn't named president of production until April 1985. The following month she and Roven married. During her tenure as president, Steel earned the nickname "Queen of Mean." She was hardworking and driven, and this bothered many people. Sometimes she had to pass on movies, like Good Morning Vietnam, in order for them to be made.
Ouster at Paramount
For some reason, which remained unclear even after her death, Steel's pregnancy in late 1986 led to her ouster from Paramount in early 1987. During her pregnancy, nothing Steel did seemed to please her bosses. Gradually she was no longer invited to meetings, and other employees often served as an intermediary between Steel and the rest of her staff. The ultimate insult was thrown while Steel was in labor with her daughter, Rebecca; an announcement was made that Gary Luccchesi, a new executive, was going to report directly to Tanen. In essence, Steel was no longer the president of production.
Her loss of status at Paramount didn't prevent executives at Columbia Pictures from pursuing Steel as a candidate for president of their motion picture division. Steel was torn about taking the job, but encouragement from her husband and friends, as well as a custom-tailored deal (including a nursery next door to her office), convinced her that this was the chance of a lifetime, the pinnacle of her career. The only glitch was that Paramount refused to let her go unless Columbia paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in reparations, which it did. In 1987 Steel became the first woman to run a major motion picture studio.
President of Columbia Pictures
At Columbia Steel had the daunting task of downsizing a bloated and overgrown division. She also had to convince stars and directors to return to work for Columbia Pictures. Columbia Pictures then ranked eighth out of the nine major studios in the United States. Besides getting sequels like Ghostbusters II and The Karate Kid III made, Steel supervised the restoration of the David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia. While Steel was lauded for her risk-taking, she viewed such actions as a symbolic of the commitment Columbia Pictures had to quality movies.
Some of Steel's earliest movies at Columbia were School Daze and The Last Emperor. But for the first few years of her term, the studio was still suffering from decisions and commitments from the earlier administration. All that changed in 1990. Major movies success, in the form of Casualties of War, Postcards from the Edge, When Harry Met Sally, Awakenings, Look Who's Talking, and Flatliners propelled Columbia to third place in the box office standings. Percentage-wise, they were now only a small fraction from the top. The world-including rival Sony Pictures-took notice.
Life after Columbia Pictures
Before she knew it, Sony purchased Columbia, and in early 1991, Steel found herself out of a job. But not for long; old friends and former colleagues Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg convinced her to become an independent producer for Disney. There she produced Cool Runnings and Honey, I Blew Up the Kids.
In 1993 Steel, husband Chuck Roven, and Bob Cavallo founded Atlas Entertainment, a company that produced films and managed rock stars. Steel also entered into negotiations with Ted Turner to become head of his film studio. He offered; she declined. Instead of running the studio, Atlas Entertainment signed an exclusive four-year deal to produce films for Turner Pictures.
While producing movies, Steel was also an activist. In 1995 she took a leadership role against the industry's decision to drop producers behind both directors and writers when giving credit to a movie. Steel also took an active role in politics, becoming one of the first of many in Hollywood to support Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.
In March of 1996, a malignant tumor was found in Steel's brain. She managed to survive for an additional 21 months, while keeping up a hectic schedule. Steel died December 20, 1997, in Los Angeles, before her final films, Fallen and City of Angels were even released. She was survived by her husband and daughter, and her loss was felt by an entire industry.
Further Reading on Dawn Steel
Steel, Dawn, They Can Kill You, But They Can't Eat You: Lessons from the Front, Pocket Books, 1993.
New York Times, December 22, 1997, p. B6.
People Weekly, January 12, 1998, p. 81.
Variety, March 7, 1994, p. 18.
Vogue, January 1987, p. 210.